We hear a lot about the psychological toll that traumatic experiences can have on people. Flashbacks, nightmares, lives ruined. Yet there is something about the personality and mindset of others that means they can endure awful adversity, somehow come through relatively unscathed, and in some cases even emerge strengthened by it.
Joh Foster is one of these people. Even before being diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer when she was 31, she’d already suffered a serious sexual assault, an abusive relationship, physical health challenges including a late diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and various mental health issues.
Yet she always bounces back. She somehow managed to complete her psychology degree while undergoing chemo and radiotherapy, and raising her son, who was aged four at the time. “Partly it makes me feel sad that I seem to unwittingly attract these kinds of experience,” she says, “but in the main I choose to believe that I am a stronger, more resilient, open, empathetic person because of them.”
What is mental resilience?
Psychologists call the ability to walk through bad experiences ‘resilience’. “It generally means adapting well in the face of chronic or acute adversity,” says neuroscientist Dr Golnaz Tabibnia, who studies the neurological basis of resilience at the University of California, Irvine.
Understandably, research interest in why some people are more resilient than others is intensifying. The fallout from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic means that a huge number of people are confronted by various forms of adversity, including illness, bereavement, job loss, isolation and more, together with a constant sense of uncertainty over what the future holds. Is there anything we can learn from the study of resilience to help us cope with the difficult months and years ahead?
One way that psychologists have attempted to learn more about resilience is by studying groups of people who have all faced adversity and then looking to see what’s different about the psychological makeup of those who seem relatively unaffected.
Last year, for instance, a team led by clinical psychologist Dr Eric Meyer at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Waco, Texas, studied hundreds of American military veterans who’d served in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They found that those who exhibited lower-than-average signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – a mark of their resilience – tended to score highly on a trait known as ‘psychological flexibility’ (measured by disagreement with statements such as ‘I am afraid of my feelings’ and ‘emotions cause problems in my life’).
“Psychological flexibility gives us the ability to shift perspectives and actions when we’re experiencing discomfort or difficulty without being overwhelmed,” says psychologist and counsellor Dr Selda Koydemir, who teaches resilience to individuals and organisations (but wasn’t involved in the veterans study).
Another key aspect to psychological flexibility is not avoiding difficult emotions, but accepting them as part of life. “When we remain in contact with aversive experiences and approach challenging situations in an accepting and flexible way, we become more resilient and are more likely to pursue a meaningful life,” Koydemir says.
A final important part of the trait is prioritising what matters to you – your values and overarching goals in life – by focusing on what you can do, in spite of adversity, to reach those goals. “Psychologically flexible people show willingness to welcome uncomfortable states, if doing so helps them pursue their goals that are aligned with their values,” adds Koydemir.
Develop the ability to adapt
Individual stories of fortitude chime with this idea that resilience emerges from an ability to adapt, combined with a strong motivation to pursue one’s values. Foster agrees that it has helped her to find various coping strategies that work in different situations (“breathwork and tactile mindfulness are my go-tos for breaking the cycle of disruptive thought patterns”) and she says that she has partly coped with adversity by channelling her energies and experiences into positives.
“A couple of years after I was ill, I started volunteering for the breast cancer awareness charity, CoppaFeel!,” she says. “I regularly go to schools, colleges, universities and workplaces, to talk about my experience and educate people on what to look and feel for. It has made a huge difference to me as it has essentially been the silver lining to the black cloud of cancer.”
Psychologists studying resilience specifically in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic have also found psychological flexibility to be key. Dr Nima Golijani-Moghaddam and Dr David Dawson, clinical psychologists and researchers at the University of Lincoln, surveyed over 500 UK citizens in May 2020, as the country was in the midst of a nationwide lockdown, to find out how they were coping emotionally.
“The current pandemic confronts us with unfamiliar and changing demands, in a context of pervasive fear and uncertainty, and we wanted to explore the promise of psychological flexibility as a source of resilience under these conditions,” says Golijani-Moghaddam.
As you might expect, the pair found elevated levels of anxiety in their sample (27 per cent met the criteria for an anxiety disorder versus an expected 6 per cent during normal times), but crucially, those individuals who scored higher for psychological flexibility were less likely to be experiencing anxiety or depression, and also reported higher overall wellbeing.
The good news for developing our own resilience for the months and years ahead is that most psychologists agree it is something that can be taught, at least partly. “We were particularly interested in psychological flexibility [in the context of COVID-19], because there is good evidence to suggest that this is something that we can change,” says Golijani-Moghaddam.
How to be more resilient
If you want to cultivate your own resilience, or the resilience of those you care about or are responsible for, there are three elements you can focus on: developing a suite of coping mechanisms; nurturing the psychological flexibility to accept difficult emotions, and knowing how and when to deploy your various coping strategies; and finally, being mindful of your values, so that you can continue to live a meaningful life in the face of adversity.
In terms of coping mechanisms, there are psychological techniques to ameliorate the impact of negative emotions, such as ‘affective labelling’ (that is, naming your feelings) and cognitive reappraisal (thinking about things in a more constructive light, such as seeing lockdown as a chance to learn a new skill). These techniques are particularly useful for when stressors are unavoidable, says Tabibnia.
Then there are other methods you can use to accentuate your positive emotions, such as deliberately dwelling on memories of good experiences from your past, and seeking ways to boost your optimism (such as by using the ‘best possible self’ exercise, see box, left). These positivity-building strategies can help buffer the effects of stress, Tabibnia says.
On their own, however, these techniques are not enough – being psychologically flexible (and therefore resilient) is about knowing which techniques to use and when. Partly this comes through practice, which means being willing to confront difficult situations in life, rather than being overly avoidant.
“Often when we’re faced with a stressful situation, our tendency is to freeze and completely avoid it,” says Tabibnia. However, this rarely helps deal with the situation and it can even make matters worse, undermining our confidence and potentially allowing problems to escalate.
In contrast, confronting sources of stress – including focusing on what is within your control – won’t just help manage the situation, it will also prepare you better for the future. “Even taking action that ultimately doesn’t change the stressor can change the brain’s response to the stressor and reduce the experience of distress, suggesting that the mere feeling of having some control over the situation is helpful,” Tabibnia explains.
In terms of accepting difficult emotions rather than always seeking to avoid them, Koydemir clarifies that this doesn’t mean being passive or submissive. “It’s a non-judgmental stance towards what is going on and involves recognising our options for action and moving towards where we want to go without our control. Ask yourself ‘What am I able to do in this situation?’ and direct your energy and effort toward the issues that you can influence.”
Finally, a guiding principle that can secure your use of emotional regulation strategies and non-judgmental acceptance is the notion of value-based living. “Know what matters to you in life and behave in ways that will take you to them,” says Koydemir. “Ask yourself ‘Is what I’m doing working or helpful?’”
These approaches to psychological flexibility and being more resilient are part of acceptance and commitment therapy, which is an offshoot from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). “It is all about showing up to what is here for us at the moment, and moving forward despite the discomfort,” Koydemir adds.
As we all adjust to the uncertainty that lies ahead, we can perhaps take heart from tentative, real-world evidence that suggests resilience really can be taught. Dr Adam Vanhove, an organisational psychologist at James Madison University, recently worked with his colleagues to survey the findings from 37 prior studies into workplace resilience training programmes. They found a modest benefit to the programmes, which might not sound fantastic, but bear in mind that most of the programmes had yet to be grounded in a mature evidence base. Also, the larger benefits were enjoyed by those who arguably needed them most. “People in high-stress jobs or who have a history of not demonstrating resilience can gain [coping] tools and learn how to use those tools from resilience training,” says Vanhove.
Vanhove adds that a silver lining to come out of the pandemic is that it has prompted a torrent of new psychological research into resilience. We already know a lot about the formula for bouncing back from adversity, but in just a few years we can expect to know much more. “The research being conducted on resilience during this pandemic will help us get through whatever 2021, 2030 or 2050 has in store in a way that no other event in the recent past has,” he says.
- This article first appeared in issue 355 of BBC Science Focus – find out how to subscribe here